Editor’s note: This is part of a weeklong look at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2019, focusing on plays, moments and defining characteristics of the inductees. Induction is at 7 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN.
Few envisioned that the 2002 NFL draft would include a historic moment for the Baltimore Ravens after it unfolded like a nightmare.
The team’s top targets were Boston College running back William Green, Arizona State offensive tackle Levi Jones and Northwestern linebacker Napoleon Harris. But Jones went to Cincinnati at No. 10, and Green went to Cleveland at No. 16. Baltimore was set to take Harris with the No. 24 pick until the Oakland Raiders selected him one spot earlier.
For the first time in the franchise’s history, the Ravens’ draft board was wiped clean. Their top 23 prospects were all gone.
Then general manager Ozzie Newsome turned his chair around to look at the top remaining name on the board.
“Ed Reed. Let’s take him,” Newsome said matter-of-factly.
Seventeen years later, Reed is the third player drafted by the Ravens to reach the Hall of Fame, joining Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis.
This is the story of how a one-time fall-back option became one of the greatest defensive players and one of the most unique characters in NFL history, as told by the people who experienced it:
When it came to approaching Reed, the rule of thumb around the Ravens’ facility centered around the state of his wardrobe. When the hood of his sweatshirt was up and covered his face, that was the indication that Reed wasn’t going to talk to you. When the hood was down, that was the time when Reed smiled and made you feel like his best friend.
John Harbaugh, Ravens coach: “People talk and say, ‘You had a week or two or three that you weren’t talking to one another.’ Yes, but that was other guys, too! There were times Ed wasn’t talking to other guys. That’s just kind of the way it was. Ed was locked in.”
Brian Billick, former Ravens coach: “Any coach or player that thinks he knows what Ed Reed is thinking or what he’s going to do is mistaken or lying. He could do things that would make you scratch your head and think, ‘What were you doing there?’ But it was a whole lot more good than bad. He’s just a different guy that way.”
Bart Scott, former teammate: “I knew he was different when he had a birthday party in his third year, and he had Maze featuring Frankie Beverly [a soul band that began in the 1970s]. I’m like, ‘Who does this?’ This dude came in with a fedora on and Maze featuring Frankie Beverly as the entertainment. I’m like, ‘You know we’re 23, 24 years old.’ But that was Ed. He’s just an old soul.”
Harbaugh: “Is Ed Reed one of a kind? I’d classify that as a rhetorical question, right? We all know. He’s one of a kind in every way — just a good, good man. A great friend, I can tell you that — not just to me but a great friend to everybody. You meet Ed Reed, he’s your friend. A one-of-a-kind player, but to me, an iconic personality and an iconic football player. Ed Reed is a legendary football player.”
One of the best ball hawks in NFL history was also a notorious night owl. He did all of his film study at home, staying up late to pick up tendencies and plot his personal plan of attack.
Jim Leonhard, former teammate: “Everyone asks: ‘Did you watch film with him?’ No, he had his process. He’d get out of the building, go home and come back and be like, ‘Did you see this, this and this?’ You’re like, ‘Whoa, I didn’t see that.'”
“… in my mind, there are levels in the Hall of Fame, too. And, I think Ed Reed, it would be hard to argue that he’s not the greatest safety in the history of football, right?” John Harbaugh
Haruki Nakamura, former teammate: “He was in a meeting just passed out. His hoodie is completely pulled over his face, and he’s sitting right next to [then secondary coach Chuck] Pagano. He’s basically snoring in the meeting. I’m a rookie, and I’m looking, like, ‘This is the greatest safety of all time? What kind of habits does this guy have?’ Pagano would all of a sudden pause the play and would tap Ed, and he would be like, ‘Ed, Ed, I need you to look at this.’ Ed would open one eye, look at the screen and say, ‘Oh, yeah, this is this. This guy is going to cross here. Blah, blah, blah.’ We would be dead silent listening. He would then close his eyes and go back to sleep. Pagano would press play, and everything Ed just said would go across the screen. We were like, ‘What the hell?’ It’s unbelievable.”
Leonhard: “We played the Bengals. He had an interception return for a touchdown. I just remember the film on Monday. I sat next to him to soak up as much knowledge as I could. I remember him leaning over early in the game. He tapped me and said remember the play. They had a guy wide-open and missed it. All of a sudden, later in the game, that interception that came up, he leans over to me and just taps me. He doesn’t say anything. You look at it, and you’re like, it’s the same play. That right there just showed me his level of intelligence and his ability to learn within the game. That stuck with me the rest of my career. You kind of realize that some people are playing chess and some people are playing checkers.”
Nakamura: “The one thing that used to bug him the most was that people used to say he was guessing. He would get so mad because they had no idea how high the percentages on the plays that he was choosing to make.”
Behind the plays
Reed set the NFL record with a 107-yard interception return against the Philadelphia Eagles in 2008. On second-and-goal from the Baltimore 1-yard line, Reed picked off Eagles backup quarterback Kevin Kolb in the end zone and made three players miss tackles to go the length of the field.
Rex Ryan, Reed’s former defensive coordinator: “I remember going into it that these guys f—ed up. What are you doing throwing down there? The guy dropped back to pass, and I knew it was a mistake from jump. It was hilarious.”
Nakamura: “[The Eagles] come up to the formation, and the guy that lines up at the wing is usually a tight end. But it was [wide receiver Reggie Brown] this time. Ed usually lines up to wherever that guy’s side is. He was communicating with somebody else, and I started screaming at him. Immediately, he sees the guy and looks at me. I’m like, ‘Oh, boy, here it goes.’ If you watch the play, he lets the guy cross his face, gives the quarterback a chance to think he can get it in there and does what Ed usually does. He steps in front and takes off.”
Leonhard: “I just remember, you see the ball in his hands, and your reaction is just go find a way to help him in the end zone. I wasn’t fast enough to get out in front. I attempted to throw a block five yards behind him and watch him go create something. I remember Haruki Nakamura trying to get him to pitch to him in the last five yards after he already ran 105 yards. I don’t know how many people helped him on that play. We all thought we helped him.”
In a 2008 wild-card game at the Miami Dolphins, Reed picked off Chad Pennington with some baiting.
Scott: “Before the play, Reed yells, ‘Bart, switch.’ He saw something in the film and recognized the formation. He knew the slant was coming, and he knew that he wanted to jump the slant. With me being in the box, the quarterback could see me going to the slant. With him coming from high, everybody on the team and everybody on the field knew he was supposed to be the deep player, and I was in the fire zone. So nobody knew what we were doing except me and him. It was the level of trust. What did he do? He made a big interception on a three-step drop. In typical Ed fashion, he’s supposed to be the deep third, and he’s jumping the quick slant.”
In October 2009, Reed intercepted Carson Palmer and returned it 52 yards for a touchdown.
Harbaugh: “[Lardarius] Webb is over here on his own on the X, but he’s not on his own. He thinks he has inside help from Ed. They get into a certain kind of a split where they always run a duck by No. 2 under No. 3. And Ed saw the split and saw the formation, and as soon as the ball snapped, he beelines right to the spot, picks it off and goes to the house. We’re all going crazy, going crazy, and he runs over. I jump, and I go, ‘You told Webby, right? You told Webby, right?’ ‘No, Webby was fine! He didn’t need me!’ But to me, that’s Ed Reed. The guy had a sixth sense about the game of football.”
Staking the claim
Harbaugh: “You go into the Hall of Fame, you’re a legendary football player. But in my mind, there are levels in the Hall of Fame too. And I think Ed Reed, it would be hard to argue that he’s not the greatest safety in the history of football, right? He’s one of the top 10 players maybe in the history of the game, in my mind.”
Scott: “He had the knack for the spectacular. He was one of my favorite teammates of all time because he had the ability to be better than you but not act like he was better than you.”
Ryan: “I wasn’t around Paul Krause or some of the other guys, but I’m just telling you that this dude was amazing. When you talk about who is the perfect safety? For me, it was Ed Reed.”